Friday, October 03, 2008

Not your usual travel memoir

What the Daily Telegraph’s former Africa correspondent, Tim Butcher, set out to do in 2004 is something even the doughtiest will be loath to try. Enamoured by the legendary adventure of Henry Morton Stanley and buoyed by his mother’s pleasant experience as a young traveller in the Congo, he set out to retrace Stanley’s journey along the mighty Congo River.

Stanley also happened to be a Telegraph correspondent who, in 1874, had undertaken a rigorous trek along the Congo River, the first of its kind, which revealed to Europe the hidden treasures that lay buried in Africa’s heart. Butcher is of the arguable view that it was Stanley’s report of the richness of the Congo basin that inspired King Leopold of Belgium to launch his colonial designs in Africa, followed, of course, by other European powers.

All this provides sufficient ground to Butcher to contemplate a similar journey, not just for purely personal reasons, which he carefully enumerates, but also to document the sheer scale of change that has set in the Congo since the first colonialists arrived at its doorstep in the nineteenth century. Since gaining independence from the Belgians in 1964, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has witnessed relentless instability. After the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the country plunged into anarchy, with the Mai-Mai rebels unleashing looting, rioting, rape and random violence.

Nearly everyone, from UN aid officials to local administrators, discourage Butcher’s travel plans. The areas that the Mai-Mai are the most active in — Kindu and Kalemie — form a major part of his travel itinerary. Yet, in August 2004, Butcher books a flight from Johannesburg to the Congo, and writes his first will. His phantasmagoric journey, starting from Lake Tanganyika on the DRC’s eastern border with Tanzania, is aided and abetted by a diverse array of people — volunteer bikers, pygmy leaders, English missionaries and so on.

The Africa Butcher criss-crosses is one where past glories have given way to a hollowed-out reality. Countless villages on his route have no semblance of normal life. Once smooth roads are now potholed and uneven. There is no power, or intermittent bouts of it. No water supply, leaving locals to use the river for drinking, washing and sewage. Dysentery and malaria are widespread, and Butcher spends several nights in areas where the threat of epidemics is very real. Most days he wakes up feeling groggy and feverish. His anti-malaria pills make him nauseous, and he must ensure adequate supplies of boiled water are at hand.

Even so, health and hygiene aren’t the least of his concerns. Always on the move so as not to arouse suspicion, Butcher stretches himself to the extremity of endurance. He encounters Mai-Mai rebels and mass graves on his way, and begins to realise that he can easily be caught in the crossfire of rival factions. Once in Kindu, he is advised by a naval commander to discontinue his journey. Cdr Wilson explains to him that the rebel commander is angry about some of his men not receiving well-paid promotions, and is therefore, threatening to pull out of the peace process.

But Butcher, nudged forth by the almost hallucinatory thrust of his ambition, keeps moving. Somewhere in the backdrop of this fragile peace, he reaches the Congo River, a most unimpressive sighting:

“The moment came during another long day of motorbiking as we picked our way along a section of track not noticeably different from the 600 kilometers that went before. We simply turned the corner and there, unheralded, in front of me, lay one of the natural wonders of the world. The object of so much mystery for generations of outsiders, and the thing that had fired my imagination through years of research, oozed lazily downstream between two thickly forested banks almost a kilometer apart.”

Butcher’s high scholarship makes this a compelling read. He sprinkles his account with references to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and to cinematic adaptations of The African Queen. But through it all, the grimness of central Africa and its lost potential hang heavy. Butcher, who is now the Middle East correspondent of the Telegraph, has done yeoman’s service to his former beat by being not only an intrepid adventurer but also an entertaining writer.


This review appeared in Business Standard.

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